Harsh and Inconsistent Parental Discipline Is Associated With Altered Cortical Development in Children

Published:February 11, 2022DOI:



      A growing body of evidence suggests that parenting behaviors may affect child mental health via altering brain development. There is a scarcity of research, however, that has investigated associations between parenting behavior and brain structure using longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging. This study aimed to investigate associations between parenting behaviors and structural brain development across the transition from childhood to adolescence.


      Participants were 246 children who provided 436 magnetic resonance imaging datasets covering the age range from 8 to 13 years. Parents (94% mothers) completed self-report measures of parenting behavior, and both children and parents reported on child mental health. Factor analysis was used to identify dimensions of parental behavior. Linear mixed-effects models investigated associations between parenting behaviors and age-related change in cortical thickness and surface area and subcortical volume. Mediation models tested whether brain changes mediated associations between parenting behaviors and changes in internalizing/externalizing symptoms.


      Hypothesized associations between parenting and amygdala, hippocampal, and frontal trajectories were not supported. Rather, higher levels of parent harsh/inconsistent discipline were associated with decreases in surface area in medial parietal and temporal pole regions and reduced cortical thinning in medial parietal regions. Some effects were present in female but not male children. There were no associations between these neurodevelopmental alterations and symptoms.


      This study provides insight into the links between parenting behavior and child neurodevelopment. Given the functions of implicated regions, findings may suggest that parental harsh/inconsistent discipline affects the development of neural circuits subserving sensorimotor and social functioning in children.


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